Playground Politics – How Up Became Down and What We Do About It

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I’m encouraged by the latest news out of West Virginia.

The offending language about special education and accountability that I wrote about recently has been removed, which means the bill represents an important step forward for school choice in a state that badly needs it. Many thanks to various people and organizations on the ground in West Virginia who helped this important result come about.

I am also encouraged by the response we got to Sonia Park’s great Contributor Column “Playground Politics” from yesterday.

Sonia’s post surfaces a real problem: How do we proactively assist people who get challenged because of their support for charter schools? Many of us have had friends who are charter school enthusiasts tell us that things have gotten so toxic in their Tesla-driving neighborhoods that they’ve simply given up trying to defend charter schools when people attack them. It’s far easier to just go quiet.

On the one hand, it’s easy to feel frustrated with our friends for succumbing to the pressure, but on the other, we recognize we’ve left these people hanging out to dry.

Sonia’s piece is the kind of thing we need to be doing much more of. It gives our folks tangible suggestions for how to handle difficult discussions. Those of us who have been in such conversations often and have learned things along the way need to be sharing with others more frequently. I have some concrete suggestions along these lines I’ll get out to folks in a future post.

But another thing we have to do is step back and recognize the absolute absurdity of the fact that, in a world where our public education system sorts kids and families and allocates educational opportunity inequitably at mass scale by design, and where charter schools don’t do such things, Sonia finds herself on a playground where the sanctimonious presumption of the other parents at the swing set is that charter schools are in some way less egalitarian in their admissions practices than traditional public schools.

How does this happen? How does up become understood to be down?

In my view, it’s a function of two things:

First, there is a conscious, extremely well-funded, never-ending campaign coming from the Establishment to define up as down, to defer attention away from the actual down-ness of traditional public schools’ admissions practices, and to re-direct it toward the supposed down-ness of charter school admissions.

Secondly, there is no communication from our side on this subject at all, or none to speak of anyway.

And that combination – well propagated lies from our adversaries and virtual radio silence from us – results in the public believing that up is down.

I mean, how else would we explain it?

In New York, as Sonia pointed out, traditional public schools are founded upon systems designed to allocate educational opportunity inequitably. Recently, we have finally begun to see our society pay a more little attention to the matter.

It’s a problem that affects admissions practices at hundreds of New York schools, with some of the most pernicious screening practices happening all the way down to the pre-school level.

In an extraordinary rebuke to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a New York City education panel early Thursday morning rejected a testing contract — halting, for now, the controversial practice of testing incoming kindergartners for admission to gifted programs. With testing originally scheduled for this spring, it’s unclear how admissions to the city’s gifted and talented programs will move ahead …. New York City is one of the only school districts in the nation that uses a test given to preschoolers to determine admission to elementary school gifted programs

While problems are particularly pronounced in New York, it’s not like there aren’t similar issues elsewhere. Just look across the Hudson.

These aren’t age-old equity problems created in the Jim Crow era. These are new schools being made right now!

And Newark isn’t the only place in New Jersey that is building new educational redlines. No matter what exit you take from the turnpike, you will find a new county opening up a vocational magnet using admissions that screen out kids along lines of race and ethnicity.

It’s a problem all across the United States.

This recent article from EducationNext does a good job talking about how widespread it is, from Boston to Virginia to all the way to progressive San Francisco where 55% of families have their kids in private schools.

The article describes the pushback from progressive parents who want to see selective admissions continue.

One white parent of an 8th grader told me in a phone interview that his son had been planning to apply to Lowell this year but no longer sees the point, given the new admissions policy. Lowell is one of the only schools in the city that this father thinks could give his son a real education. The man declined to be named in this article because his son was applying to private schools and he worried that the boy’s chances of admission there would be diminished if he were among the parents labeled “racist” for supporting merit-based admissions. A self-described progressive, this father says that he has been “shocked” at just how disconnected the board is from the people they represent. “I can’t deny their reality, but it’s so far from the reality I’m living in, it’s laughable,” he said.

I’ve written about similar problems in DC …

… as well as in my hometown here in Sacramento where the use of selective admissions has not surprisingly ended up contributing to a host of other racial inequity problems.

None of these admissions problems address the other aspect of educational redlining that Sonia’s piece brings up, which is the use of attendance boundaries that only further reinforce the inequitable allocation of educational opportunity happening in our traditional public schools.

Meanwhile, in the down is up world we live in, charter schools – the only schools not engaged in all this admissions nonsense – get presented as the ones that are supposedly trying to screen out kids. We end up the targets of lawsuits like this one in New Jersey …

… or the targets of patently unfair media hits like this one from the Southern California ACLU …

… to name but two examples.

Can you imagine what the press would be if the charter school movement was planning to open new high schools in Newark where admission would be based on how well applicants do on admissions tests such that Black and Brown kids would be systematically excluded?

Can you imagine the outrage if charter schools were using testing to determine what kids are admitted to kindergarten?

CharterFolk, up has become down, and we have to figure out what to do about it.

How do we drive a new narrative such that people like Sonia aren’t contending with a general backdrop that describes our public education system in completely upside down terms?

At different times here at CharterFolk I have said that there are two things that will ultimately define our movement:

  • What we advocate for
  • And how we advocate for it

Across both axes, in my opinion, our efforts are off the mark.

First, we don’t know what we are advocating for. We have no good North Star, and because of that, we really have no well-defined point of view on tough issues such as what to do about non charter schools that use selective admissions.

Do I think that all such schools should simply go away overnight leaving thousands of families in communities across the country without options?

No, I don’t. Absolutely not.

But I also sure as heck don’t think we should be saying that the way things are now is acceptable. And I immodestly suggest that some of the things I have been writing about here at CharterFolk regarding the need for Greatly More Public Education and the need to address the Great Disconnect of 2021 could provide something of a North Star for navigating highly complex issues.

This will be the subject of next Wednesday’s post: What should be our position on selective admissions schools and redlining attendance boundaries?

Secondly, we don’t know how we should be advocating either. We don’t have a good advocacy strategy for advancing a North Star should we ever get one.

That will be the subject for next Friday’s post: Presuming we come to a position reflecting our values and aspirations as a movement, how do we get our new narrative out into the landscape such that we stop leaving CharterFolk on a limb when they are accosted by sanctimonious neighbors at the climbing structure?

Taken together, the two posts will attempt to surface a viable approach for helping the world recognize that up is in fact up and that down is in fact down, and that the charter school movement is a force that has the potential to drive our entire public education system in the direction of a North Star we should all be eager and proud to aspire toward.

Hope to see you here.